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Technology Thoughts

Sony VAIO VGN-N29VN & Vista Business edition

Today, two brand new Sony VAIO N29 business laptops running the Business edition of Vista. Herein is chronicled the sad events which followed…

(NB: If you search for “vaio n29” in English via Google, you get less than two pages of results, none of which are from a Sony site, and most are sites trying to sell you things? Has Sony misguidedly tagged their site not to be indexed? Frustrating…)

First impressions

Don’t expect to be able to do much in a hurry – after first booting the machine, there were about 25 minutes of Vista configuring itself and restarting several times before actually reaching the desktop… not an auspicious start.

These are 1.6GHz Core2 Duo machines with 1Gb RAM – so, whilst not absolutely top of the line, they should be pretty responsive. They’re not. Whilst certainly not slow per-se, they do seem to be labouring a little, and feel noticeably slower than my older 1.7GHz Centrino “Banias” Pentium M system with 512Mb RAM – which is based around a single-core processor first introduced over four years ago.

Perhaps I’m spoilt by using a MacBook Pro myself (yes, I admit it – I am 😉 ) but the delay Vista requires in order to wake from sleep is inordinate. Yes, it’s only 5 to 10 seconds in practise – but in comparison with the almost instant wake delay on MacOS, it seems like a significant delay… especially if I’ve just closed the screen, then open it again because something has occurred to me. Further, why can’t the Sony be configured to wake when the screen is opened? Again, having to open the screen then press a key is hardly a major imposition – but it feels unnecessary.

Software

In a move that reflects badly on Sony but which is squarely Microsoft’s fault, the default RSS reader widgetgadget cano be configured to show either a selected single feed, or all feeds – but not a selection of feeds. This means that you enable the RSS reader (which is very poor) in order to see headlines, but are instead inundated with Sony’s marketing material. It’s entirely non-obvious to the beginner that the way to edit/delete these feeds is to Launch IE7, and then look at the Feeds tab of the Favorites (sic) panel.

The next thing that strikes the new user is the amount of useless (pardon my French) crapware that Sony installs. Why should anyone, having just spent many hundreds of pounds on a laptop, then be expected to pay even more for bloated (and most likely completely ineffective: Most viruses have spread and caused their damage before the AV vendors have updated their definitions) tools to patch the deficiencies of the supplied Operating System. Worse that just installing useless junk, there is at least one item which won’t uninstall (via Add/Remove Programs – or whatever Vista calls the equivalent) because it needs to re-run its installer, which it thinks should be in the system “temp” directory. In fact, the requested file is nowhere on the file-system at all – very shoddy. A further item which piqued my interest was “Browser Error Page Redirector”… any guesses what that was doing there?

(Along the same lines I noticed that Sony have set the default search engine in Internet Explorer 7 to be Google: fair enough. However, if you do a search without connectivity via the search bar, you find out that the request was actually being sent to “eu.sony.com/uk/search” – why are Sony lying to their customers and trying to pass-off their own search (which seems to merely pass through from Google) as Google’s own? Surely at the very least this is either misrepresentation or against the terms of the Data Protection Act?)

How this useless demo software really puts off new users, though, is via the “Windows Welcome Center”. This is supposed to be the first port of call for new users who want to get to know their systems, and contains shortcuts to the relevant tools and locations. However, Microsoft also added an OEM-specific section to this application which can’t, so far as I can see, be easily reconfigured post-installation. In this OEM section Sony have, in their wisdom, installed many gaudy adverts to encourage you to buy this or that product or demo – having no less than two links to Symantec/Norton Anti-Virus, despite installing their demo software to run as default anyway.

To rub salt into the wounds, no recovery media is provided from which to do a from-scratch reinstall – only a 10Gb hidden partition. This means that any attempt to reinstall would merely result in all of the malware being restored to its former state. Oddly, the only way to access this restore partition – no discs being provided – is via the “VAIO Restore” Windows application… so you need a working Windows installation to trigger the installation tool to reinstall Windows, which you should only need if you don’t have a working Windows installation. Hmm. Perhaps this is Sony’s admission that Vista, like every release of Windows before it, really needs a clean reinstall every six months to avoid it grinding to a halt.

Drivers & Hardware

Despite only running at 1.6GHz, this machine seems to run very hot – even when just sitting idle at the desktop, the CPU exhaust duct on the right side of the laptop and the centre of the underside of the machine get uncomfortably hot. The machine has VGA-out but no DVI (because of DRM concerns?) and two USB sockets – both also on the right. Firewire, as standard across the Sony range, is present but only in its four-pin powerless form, rendering useless bus-powered devices (and saving Sony a license payment to Apple by branding the connector “i.LINK” rather than “Firewire”. The ExpressCard slot sits immediately next to the two USB sockets, and indeed any ExpressCard at all wider than the socket itself would almost certainly snag on the upper socket. The right hand side of the unit it finished off with microphone and headphone connectors and a hardware wireless kill-switch.

Sony seem to have abandoned their software-controlled P1 and P2 buttons for disabling wireless radios – and, indeed, these machines seem to lack Bluetooth entirely. This is an odd choice given the popularity of transferring contacts to and from phones wirelessly…

The front of the machine has MemoryStick Pro and Secure Digital sockets as well as status lights (power, battery, disc, and wireless activity lights) – although all are set into the lower body of the laptop which curves away to the base, angling them away from the user and making them very difficult to read or access without tilting the laptop to 45°.

The rear of the machine has the familiar alcove for a standard Sony laptop battery, where two edges of the battery form the rear of the laptop itself. In this iteration, the clips to hold the battery in place have moved from the chassis to the battery itself, which is probably a good move in terms of resiliency. The rear also contains modem and ethernet jacks – both of which have no cover whatsoever, and and completely exposed. I’m not keen on this on the side of a laptop – but when on the rear, I’d imagine there’s much greater chance of something being accidentally rammed in to them. Oddly, the only cable supplied with the machine out of the box is a telephone cable… an odd choice these days – especially when no ethernet cable is present.

The right side of the laptop features a hole for Kensington lock, but is then dominated by the tray of the integral DVD drive. Why Sony still uses a tray-based design across it’s entire range is a mystery to me – on a laptop, this just seems to be screaming out to be ripped of or bent when the owner is jostled when trying to insert of remove a disc.

(For the same reason, I think that the placement of the drive-opening on the MacBook Pro is ludicrous. The MacBook has it exactly right, though, and has a slot-loading drive which opens from the side of the machine)

I’m unconvinced by the Matshita mechanisms that Sony habitually uses – I’ve owned two different Sony laptops over the last five years, and both had Matshita drives which quickly regressed from finicky to downright inoperative. The internal DVD drive on my Z1 refuses to read any almost disc that it didn’t write itself reliably, and even those often stop working too.

Finally, the screen is one of Sony’s excellent X-Black affairs – although with a resolution of only 1280×800, despite being 15.4″. Having said this, the colours are vibrant and the reflection is nowhere near as bad as I expected (or as earlier X-Black screens were). The screen is housed in a somewhat retro black rectangle which might be trying to emulate a black MacBook, but without the aesthetic charm: there is a rather chunky bezel with large borders at the top and bottom of the screen (which appears to have been designed for a non-widescreen aspect ratio, then re-tooled later), and the design is probably best described as “monolithic” – the screen is a rectangular black slab lying atop the silver lower-chassis. Although less then a centimetre thick, it feels chunky – but it still almost worryingly flexible (although this could be an excellent impact-avoidance technique). It’s a shame that the (silver) hinges onto the screen are fairly large and prominent – I’ve always much preferred screens which swivel around the lower chassis by a full-height hinge, rather than those which have a (usually) smaller book-hinge between the screen and the top of the chassis.

The greatest redeeming feature of Sony laptops for me has always been their excellent keyboards – I love the design where the cursor keys do not sit lower than the rest of the keyboard, and Home/End/Page Up/Page Down are also found on the cursors, with the “Fn” button to activate them to the immediate top-right of them, between Up and Right. In this case, as I believe with all newer Sony designs, this design has been jettisoned to be replaced with a vertical row of Home/Page Up/Page Down/End on the right-most side of the keyboard. I’ve never been keen on this, as I always have to look to see what key I’m going to hit – there seems to be little logical progression to the arrangement. The cursor keys still sit snug with the other keys on the keyboard, though – so all is not lost. The keycaps themselves appear to be reminiscent of the MacBook keyboard, without the inconvenience (to the manufacturer) of having a separate frame around each key – the entire thing depresses. Indeed, the black keyboard on a silver body seem to invoke the original Titanium PowerBook design. The final oddity is the shiny Windows key, in contrast to the matte finish of all others… which is actually quite distracting. The real test is how the keyboards survive given time and extended use – whist all keyboards will develop shiny patches over common keys, I’ve had Sony keyboards practically melt on me in the past, with space keys with a pronounced droop over the area I use most… let’s hope that this is also a think of the past.

Sony chose to use a “LAN-Express AS IEEE 802.11g PCI-E” wireless adapter. “Who?” – exactly. I don’t really mind – but surely, for a mid-range Sony laptop you could at least have expected Intel’s own chipset.

Instability

During the first few hours with this machine – mostly applying updates (over 200Mb ontop of a fresh Vista install, between Microsoft’s OS and Sony’s applications) I saw the new style “Program is not responding” crash dialog no less than 8 times on a single machine. The default option is “Close program and look on-line for solutions” – despite choosing this every time, no solutions were ever presented… the dialog just span for a few seconds then disappeared.

Now (possibly because I had the temerity to uninstall the Symantec/Norton Anti-Virus demo?) I get both an (exceedingly helpful) “Application failed to initialize properly (0xc0000142)” from AVG Anti-Spyware (which is allegedly Vista-compatible) and the Sony Update software crashes on each launch…

I might be trying that Restore feature more quickly than I imagined…

Connectivity

We have used Vodafone 3G PCMCIA data-cards up until now. These are, in fact, quite impressive – they have fully Linux support, where they appear as two PCMCIA-connected serial ports (one for data, the other for commands). However, Vodafone do not have an ExpressCard version, and most new laptops don’t have PCMCIA any longer. So, after some looking around, we bit the bullet and upgraded to HSDPA USB modems. I was hugely impressed by this device – Vodafone supplies it with varying amounts of cable which will suit most situations, and when plugged in to Windows is appears as a virtual CD device, which then auto-runs to install the software. Very neat, very user-friendly… so long as you’re running Windows XP. On Vista, it detects a USB CD drive, but then reports that the filesystem on it is corrupt (eh?), and Vista has no native drivers, despite it being exposed as a standard USB modem. On contacting Vodafone and being given the Vista-compatible software which doesn’t support the USB modem, I was then told that the new Vista software would be released before the end of the month… worryingly, I saw a post from someone saying that they’d been told the same thing, and that was over a month ago back in March.

This is, of course, nothing to do with Sony (except for moving to ExpressCard before any expansion cards are available for it – but that’s the standard chicken-and-egg situation) and much to do with Vodafone and Microsoft.

I can’t help thinking that Microsoft have done the almost impossible – they’ve released an OS with so little Windows backwards-compatibility that it now suffers significantly worse hardware support than Linux, and is arguably about on par with Mac OS. How the mighty fall…

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